There is something very dated about therapy in movies. Sure, millions of real people continue to see psychiatrists, psychologists, analysts and therapists, but the depiction of therapy on screen feels so, I don't know, yesterday. Or maybe it's neurotic characters that seem old hat, but either way therapy has at least become dated by association. Of course, as a genre, romantic comedy needs the occasional shrink, because it needs that convention of neurotic characters and those neurotic characters generally (and generically) need therapy. One day, perhaps, someone can rewrite the book on romantic comedy, which hasn't been adequately revised or updated since Woody Allen turned in his version thirty years ago. Until then, we are stuck with movies like Ira and Abby, which utilizes not one, not two, but at least eight therapists or analysts.
The movie even makes a distinction about the difference between therapists and analysts (therapists talk; analysts listen) and hardly features a character that isn't one or the other. There are personal analysts, group therapists and marriage counselors, doctors assigned to every stereotypically Jewish surname known to screenwriters (Rosenblum, check; Goldberg, check; Silverberg, check; etc.). While neither of the two title characters is technically in the profession, Ira (Chris Messina) is writing his dissertation in order to become a psychologist and Abby (Jennifer Westfeldt) is constantly told she should open her own practice, simply because she's so good with people.
Ira and Abby tells the story of the bizarre relationship of its title characters, who meet, have sex and get engaged in six hours time. By the end of the night, they've met each other's parents and they're married in a week – in an actual backyard ceremony, not a quickie City Hall thing. Ira is your basic neurotic male, while Abby is the common free-spirited female who is his opposite, and therefore his perfect match, cinematically at least. Really, though, to the audience she comes across as a flaky, seemingly near-retarded woman who is pretty enough and nice enough to consider her immediate proposal but obviously too nuts to seriously consider it.
There is some recognition that she may be crazy. Ira's mother (Judith Light) tells him of the realistic possibility that first night. Later, the question of her sanity becomes the start of their first fight. But Abby isn't crazy; she's just loopy, which in the movies is perfectly normal. Ira and Abby doesn't suddenly become David and Lisa, even though it is troubling to buy this movie's premise as being about everyday people. Still, there is a catch: not surprisingly, Abby has been married twice before. She's not the serial bride you might expect, but the truth of her past is enough for Ira to annul their marriage. However, they soon are wed again, halfway into the film.
Meanwhile Ira's mother begins an affair with Abby's father (Fred Willard). It makes sense for her, a surgically beautiful older woman who only married her husband (Robert Klein) because she was pregnant with Ira. The couple admits they've never loved each other, are married for the conveniences and the familiarity and have each cheated before. Abby's parents, on the other hand, have always represented the ideal of marriage. Her mother (Frances Conroy) is the kind of caring, still-attractive woman who never should be the victim of infidelity. But Abby's father says his wife has become like a sister, and that just isn't sexy.
Obviously the movie is cynical about marriage. But it should be pointed out that neither of its filmmakers has ever been married. The director, Robert Cary, is gay, and in fact, like many gay men, wishes he could become wed. Jennifer Westfeldt, who plays Abby and also wrote the screenplay, has simply witnessed too much divorce in her family to see much point in the institution of marriage. Unfortunately, the same is true for many of us. My own parents divorced twenty-five years ago and I've had doubts about the sanctity of marriage ever since. So, I just don't see much freshness in the argument. The idea would have been more poignant a long time ago.
There are other elements of Ira and Abby that make it seem to take place in an earlier era – are there any New Yorkers who still have answering machines in their apartments? – but the issues with therapy and marriage are dominant. It is possible the filmmakers intended the dated feel, though, in order to emphasize the statements that therapy and marriage are impractical fads that never went away; instead they mistakenly became norms. Actually, the therapy element is treated with cynicism, but it isn't truly criticized entirely – the filmmakers, while not having experience with marriage, have had their share of therapy – and the climax of the movie features a group session involving all the characters and all of their doctors (played by Jason Alexander, Chris Parnell, Darrell Hammond, and others).
Ira and Abby is far from being an unlikable movie. It has a charming lunacy about it, which allows for much enjoyment, or at least comfortable, familiar, routine easiness (like a marriage). Westfeldt, who here lacks the sort of trendy novelty that made her first film, Kissing Jessica Stein, a success, is a decent writer who is probably better suited for television. In fact, it isn't difficult to divide Ira and Abby into four episodes of a series, or to imagine the story continuing past the credits and through at least one whole season. The fact that this movie employs so many great actors common to television accentuates its belonging to that medium. And certainly it isn't an insult these days to say that a writer is made for TV. It isn't like Westfeldt should be writing network sitcoms; she could easily find a place on cable. Of course, she would have to learn to be more modern in her ideas.